Last week, Joel Stein slammed the youth of America with his cover story, “The Me Me Me Generation,” for Time magazine. In his first paragraph Stein prefaces the article by acknowledging, “I am about to do what old people have done throughout history: call those younger than me lazy, entitled, selfish and shallow.” Right there the article is done for me. It is not our generation specifically that suffers from chronic laziness and narcissistic behavior, this is a phase that almost every human being endures. In 2010 NPR put out a great story showing that the frontal lobe,the center of the brain for impulse control and logical decision making, does not fully develop until about 21. In fact it does not even reach it’s strongest potential until late thirties-early forties. Adults cannot judge the actions of teenagers on the same scale that they judge themselves.
Stein claims that his argument is supported by facts and charts. And although they do hold truth, there are lots of holes in this data. Elspeth Reeve of The Atlantic Wire did a fantastic retort where she analyzed the points Stein was trying to make. My favorite is a response to a study on narcissism where she combats, “Basically, it’s not that people born after 1980 are narcissists, it’s that young people are narcissists, and they get over themselves as they get older. It’s like doing a study of toddlers and declaring those born since 2010 are Generation Sociopath: Kids These Days Will Pull Your Hair, Pee On Walls, Throw Full Bowls of Cereal Without Even Thinking of the Consequences” [emphasis in original].
This article is discouraging. If a teacher shakes their head and gives their student a failure notice, or a parent looks cross when they child laying around the house instead of out working, the majority of teens reactions is to feel badly about themselves. In a more ideal situation when adults are encouraging, and instead, show kids what they should be doing. Often this optimistic approach leads to teens seeing a path for improvement. Children are a product of the environment where they grow up.
I agree with Stein that our generation is so attached to their technology that half of our conversation takes place over a sequence over taps on a glass screen, but technology also enables a whole new way of communication that can connect to people universally. A friend of mine, Kirby Engelman, is a passionate beekeeper and advocate for the preservation of their population. She started with a documentary last year and then took her work out to the local elementary schools where she then made an audiotrack documentary of her experience educating the kids. I had three other friends who made a documentary to provide affordable housing in a their predominantly wealthy neighborhood. Another friend worked on an art installation to show the amount of homicides in chicago that have been occurring in Chicago just this year, and was able to get this piece “retweeted” by a bigger organization called “CURE Violence.” When teens feel passionate about something, the internet allows them to reach out to other people to create awareness and hopefully, action.
Human nature is to be selfish, but social constructs enable our compassionate side to be employed; therefore, empathy is something learned through the human experience and maturation. For the majority of people, their instinctive narcissism withers with age, so comparing, say, a seventeen year old to a thirty year old is just unfair. Finger wagging and critical comments is an old time tactic that certainly powers some youth to prove the doubter wrong, but the best way to empower a whole generation is through positivity and hope.
And finally…I leave you with a song.